She sat there staring at me, caught in some timeless moment like a fly in amber, unable to answer me for the simple and inescapable reason that there was only one answer.
I nodded slowly. ‘You remind me of that uncle of mine.’ Binnie put the pint of lager down on the table. ‘What was it they called him again, Binnie? The Schoolmaster of Stradballa?’
‘That’s it, Major.’
I turned to Norah Murphy and said gently, but with considerable cruelty for all that, ‘He never wanted it to-end, either. It was his whole life, you see. Trenchcoats and Thompson guns, action by night, a wonderful, violent game. He enjoyed it, Norah, if that’s the right word. It was the only way he wanted to live his life – just like you.’
She was white-faced, trembling, a kind of agony in her eyes, and she turned it all on me. ‘I fight for a cause,
When that man is dead and gone
Major. I’ll die for it if necessary and proud to, like thousands before me.’ She placed both hands flat on the table and leaned towards me. ‘What did you ever believe in, Major Simon bloody Vaughan ? What did you kill for ?’
‘You mean what was my excuse, don’t you ?’ 1 nodded. ‘Oh, yes, Doctor, we all need one of those.’
She sat back in the chair, still trembling and I said softly, ‘You’ll be late for the pick-up. Better get going.’
She took a deep breath as if to pull herself together and stood up. ‘I want Binnie to go with you.’
‘Don’t you trust me ?’
‘Not particularly, and I’d like the address and telephone number of this place where your friend Meyer is staying. I’ll phone you at four o’clock. Whatever happens, don’t leave till you hear from me.’ She turned to Binnie. Tm counting on you to see that he does as he’s told, Binnie.’
He looked more troubled than I’d ever seen him, torn between the two of us, I suspect, for it had become more than obvious that the events of the previous night had considerably enlarged his respect for me. On the other hand, he loved Norah Murphy in his own pure way. She had been put into his charge by the Small Man, he would die, if necessary, to protect her. It was as simple, or as complicated, as that.
A great deal of this Norah Murphy saw and her mouth tightened. I wrote Meyer’s address and phone number on a scrap of paper and gave it to her.
‘Ask for Mr Berger,’ I said. ‘If anything goes adrift, we’ll meet back at the boat.’
She said nothing. Simply glanced at the piece of paper briefly, dropped it into the fire and walked out.
Binnie said, ‘When I was a kid on my Da’s farm in Kerry I had the best-looking red setter you ever paw.’
I tried some more lager. ‘Is that so ?’
‘There was a little flatcoat retriever bitch on the next place and whenever he went over there, she used to take lumps out of him. You’ve never seen the like.’ There was a heavy pause and he went on, ‘When he was run over by the milk lorry one morning, she lay in a corner, that little bitch, for a week or more. Would neither drink nor eat. Now wasn’t that the strange thing ?’
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘It’s really quite simple. She was a woman. Now get the hell out of here with your homespun philosophy and hire us a car at the local garage. I’ll wait here for you.’
‘Leave it to me, Major,’ he said, his face expressionless, and went out.
The door closed with a soft whuff, wind lifted a paper off the bar, the fire flared up.
What was my reason for killing^That’s what she had said. I tried to think of Kota Baru, of the burned-out mission, the stink of roasting flesh. It had seemed enough at the time – more than enough, but there was nothing real to it any more. It was an echo from an ancient dream, something that had never happened.
And then it was quiet. So quiet that I could hear the clock ticking on the mantelpiece, and for no logical reason whatsoever my stomach tightened, dead men’s fingers seemed to crawl across my skin and I suddenly knew exactly what Meyer meant by having a bad feeling.